How Boston Properties makes money: Selling us stuff we already bought

A rendering, presented last week by Boston Properties, shows the structure to be built atop its rooftop garden in Kendall Square.

We know what the City Council did Monday, but it’s not clear its members know why they did it.

The council agreed 7-2 to let Boston Properties build atop a rooftop garden in Kendall Square, removing about 40 percent of it from public use, in exchange for five “commitments.” They proved to have a dramatically soothing effect on most of the officials and some residents.

When the proposal was thrust on the councillors Feb. 27 with hopes of a fast response, most were angry at the lack of proper process. Hearing that the developer planned to have a whirlwind process and be back Monday, councillor Tim Toomey said: “I don’t see how this is going to be wrapped by March 19, if ever it’s going to be wrapped up, as far as I’m concerned.” But on Monday he was feeling much better, looking at the “exciting possibilities” and “great opportunities” presented by the developer’s willingness to spend $2 million creating a ground-level public park on nearby Binney Street.

“This could have been resolved in a much friendlier manner than it was. I hope we could take a lot from how that process was not conducted in the right manner,” Toomey said by way of rebuke to Boston Properties, whose commitments also took a step toward fulfilling its long and frequently delayed promises to build housing in Kendall Square. “Housing is still something at the forefront of everyone’s concerns. I hope Boston Properties will recognize it’s actually a gain for them to build housing. Hopefully this will speed up even more quickly the design and construction of housing in this area. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Housing and the hotel

Councillor Ken Reeves recalled that Boston Properties had promised the council three times that it would build housing in Kendall. The promise as of Monday is that within one year after the city issues a certificate of occupancy for the rooftop building, the company will “agree to submit for public review and comment a set of conceptual design plans for a residential building of approximately 200,000 square feet to be located on Ames Street.” (As councillor Minka vanBeuzekom noted before voting against the agreement, “It doesn’t say anything about building — it just says they’ll give us design plans. For me to even contemplate that, it would have to say they would commit to build. As has been pointed out before, they’ve made this promise multiple times. This does not seem like a very strongly worded exchange.” The other opposing vote, Craig Kelley, was even more pessimistic about the language: “I’m writing the housing off completely,” he said.)

The agreement in place already says that unless residential construction begins within seven years of the end of work on the company’s Broad Institute expansion, the company faces financial penalties. It’s not clear that agreeing “to submit for public review and comment a set of conceptual design plans” speeds that up in the least.

Now, most of us live in a world where, when we make a deal, we have to live up to that deal. Boston Properties has built a world where, after they renege on building housing, a weak and poorly worded agreement to present merely a design for housing to which it has already committed counts as one-fifth of what it will give up to get something else it actually wants.

A second “commitment” — to make the Marriott Hotel plaza a livelier place by programming events there — also already existed.

“That’s probably my fault about programming the plaza. I wanted them to put that in writing,” Mayor Henrietta Davis said Monday after the meeting. “They did say they were going to do that anyway.”

The park

It’s interesting that Davis wanted it in writing, but let’s move on. What’s left? An extension of the public’s right to visit the rooftop garden for 28 years; $250,000 toward design and construction of a better intersection at Broadway and Third and Main streets, whether as the current Point Park or to improve traffic flow; and the $2 million for the park on Binney, which councillors kept returning to as a significant gift. (When asked whether Boston Properties had actually sold the city three things it already possessed, Davis said immediately, “Two million dollars we did not have … that’s real dollars on the barrelhead,” and when asked about the housing the developer was already committed to build, she said immediately, “the $2 million for programming the park at Binney Street was nowhere.”)

Over the past couple of weeks, people have testified repeatedly to how long a park has been hoped for and requested, and on Monday people spoke of how vital the Binney Street park can be in tying together neighborhoods — but the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority said five months ago that it was deeding the same land to the city for 40 years to serve the same purpose. This is the same city that spent $7.5 million fighting a $4.5 million finding in a civil rights lawsuit and that boasts of having more than $100 million in free cash. If the policy-setting body known as the City Council really, really wants a park on the land it’s been deeded for four decades for that purpose, there must be some way of spending less than 2 percent of the city’s free cash to get it done without waiting for a private developer to come along and dangle it as a gift.

An unrevealed urgency

The world most of us live in is also the world where, when we work for someone, we do what they tell us. But City Manager Robert W. Healy lives in a world where he tells his bosses on the council only as much information as they need to do what he tells them. So Healy, Boston Properties and Google come before the council Feb. 27 saying there is an urgency to the deal, but that Healy wouldn’t say what the urgency was. And on Monday the council voted to fulfill that request without ever knowing. When asked whether they knew the reason for the rush, one councillor just said “good question”; others, including Davis, guessed it had to do with Google being courted away from Cambridge.

“I didn’t want Google to leave Cambridge. You can see the marketplace was active. As soon as it was known Google was looking for a home, suddenly it was like an auction. Boston said, ‘Okay, come our way,’ and I heard New Bedford did. They’re very much in demand,” Davis said.

Part of that is true. But according to reports in The Boston Globe, Boston Herald and SouthCoastToday.com, the mayors of Boston and Fall River reached out to Google to move only after the council’s initial rebuff of Boston Properties’ plan Feb. 27, the same day Healy’s pitch included that mysterious urgency. And here’s what SouthCoastToday.com’s Brian Boyd found when he talked about Google moving with Thomas G. Davis, executive director of the Greater New Bedford Industrial Foundation, which runs New Bedford Business Park:

It’s unlikely the company will move 50 miles south to an alternative site in this area … “They have a large cluster of employees in Cambridge and they need to expand and they want to expand where they have a large cluster,” Davis said … While SouthCoast offers companies lower business costs, Davis said that is not a major concern for Google. Instead, they are trying to remain close to Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other universities that provide talent for the company.

But if Boston and Fall River reached out only after Feb. 27, what was the urgency Healy spoke of that same night? The council doesn’t know. Again, it voted on the plan without knowing or even asking.

Google’s manager of corporate communications, Jordan Newman, said Tuesday, “We have no comment on the ‘urgency.’ In terms of the specifics of the proposal, it’s best to reach out to Boston Properties.” And Boston properties hasn’t responded to a question about the urgency at all. A request for comment was also left at the city manager’s office.

We know this: Google and Boston Properties had time to whip up a proposal, complete with measured plans and careful, colorful renderings, to illustrate the urgently needed connector building and the amenities that would come along with it.

The council has given a tacit, 7-2 endorsement to the technique, even if its members think they haven’t.

“Trying to box the City Council into a position is never smart, because every deal is about the last deal and the future deal,” said councillor Marjorie Decker, shortly before voting with the majority to let Boston Properties build.

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